"Just fucking get him, we'll figure it out when he gets here." Ray Hudson's Year Coaching Preki


I'd been working on the Sacramento Republic FC book for about a year before I began the Preki chapter in early 2016. In my original outline, this was one of the last sections that I started because the original Republic FC coach was nowhere to be found after resigning midway through the 2015 season. The former US international announced in July 2015 that he was seeking another coaching opportunity abroad.


When I spoke to Ray Hudson, who coached Preki on the 2001 Miami Fusion, it had been 11 months since Preki's last public comments. Preki's legendary mystique only grew in my mind as Hudson waxed on about his star attacking midfielder's quality that year.


Hudson's Fusion acquired Preki for a mere third round draft pick in the preseason that year after the Kansas City Wizards were convinced that their 37-year-old star was washed. But with Preki in a lineup surrounded by 2001 MLS MVP and scoring champion Alex Pineda Chacon and Colombian Diego Serna, the Fusion went 16-5-5 to win the Supporters' Shield. Miami scored 57 goals in 26 games that year with Preki hitting the back of the net eight times. The Serbian-American's total of 14 assists in 2001 was only topped by Serna and John Wilmar Perez.


Though favorites to win the title, the Fusion lost in the MLS Cup Playoff semifinals to the San Jose Earthquakes. Following the season, the club folded and Preki returned to the Wizards, where he'd win the league MVP award at age 40 in 2003. 2001 was the only year in MLS Preki didn't spend in Kansas City.


The final note I have before the interview is that Ray Hudson's broadcast performances aren't an act. For 20 minutes, he spoke to me in the same passionate manner, and used the same poetic metaphors, that he does when calling FC Barcelona games for beIN Sports. The man just has a lifelong love affair with football. During several of his recollections, he screamed into the phone, unable to contain his joy for Preki and the sport. It was incredible.


Question: That 2001 Miami Fusion team that you coached won the Supporters’ Shield with an incredible collection of talent. What was that team like?


Hudson: It was an exceptionally good team with exceptionally good attacking players, not just from those three, but starting with our goalkeeper in Nicky Rimando, who we used his wonderful, soft feet before Barcelona even did. We really did...it was all guns to the forefront in attack. Preki, of course, was a wonderful X-factor in a massive way. The likes of Chacon was a beautifully gifted, balanced footballer. Diego Serna was the all-time classic box of toys, which you didn’t know what was going to come out of. Behind them, we had a midfield that was wonderful in Ian Bishop and Jimmy Rooney and flanked with great players like Henderson on one side and Tyrone Marshall on the other. At the back, it was a very strong side with Pablo Mastroeni just starting to emerge as a real talent. But you know, Evan, the strange thing about that team and Preki in particular, was that it was pretty much set, the team before the start of the season, we were working on the structure, it looked as if it was going to be interesting to say the least. And then my good general manager, Doug Hamilton, called me to the office early one morning, I had to go up from practice. He said, “I got some big news, you need to come here now.” I went to his office and Doug said, “we’ve got a good chance that we can get Preki, what do you think?” I said, “what do you mean what do I think? Get him.” He says, “where you gonna play him? You know, you’ve got your team structure in place right now.” I said, “to hell with that! Just get him.” He says, “well you gonna play him?” in typical general manager (fashion), “where you gonna play him, how’s he gonna fit in?” I said, “just fucking get him. We’ll figure it out when he’s here. Don’t lose him.” I couldn’t wait to be with him. He came down to Fort Lauderdale and we had a wonderful preseason. You could tell as soon as Preki came to the team, he was the final piece of the puzzle. We didn’t know how it was going to develop, Evan. We didn’t know how successful it was gonna be. It seemed suicidal. But at the end, I said to the guys, listen, we’re gonna play with three at the back, and I remember Pablo Mastroeni, who had been a midfielder, I said, Pablo, why don’t you drop to the back with Carlos Llamosa and Ivan McKinley and seemed fucking ridiculous. It was the proverbial jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces not fitting together, but we knew all the pieces were beautiful, but there was no way I was going to be offered the talent like Preki and not have him in my footballing team. He was an absolute wizard, an absolute wizard for the Fusion, not for his old team, who didn’t want him anymore. Doug Hamilton virtually got up from his desk and kissed me when I said get him, just get him, because he was Doug’s type of player as well. A pure, pure footballer, with an absolutely diabolical footballing mind. He was great, he was great with the guys, Evan. He was a hard worker in practice. He brought a great attitude, he brought a real edge about him, he brought all the right things for a winning attitude. He was never happy. He was always grumpy. The lads actually loved him for it. He was never content, he was never content with anything, either his own game, or the team’s game, or the team’s practice. He did it and handled it in the matter of a true professional football, a gladiator, that knew that game for him was do or die and his team was as good as his arms and he wasn’t gonna let them down. There were concerns at first. It was the manner that Kansas just let him go and cut him free, that we were what’s wrong with him? Is he carrying an injury? Did he go through some personal meltdown? What the hell’s wrong? Why don’t you want Preki? We said to hell with it, just get him, and we’ll sort it out. And we did. He was magic. Magic.

Q: How did all those pieces end up fitting together?


Hudson: That entire team was a team of misfits...Chacon arrived from Honduras in name and reputation, but had never been out of his country. Serna was not somebody that everybody was willing to tolerate. Jimmy Rooney was always a hothead. I made him my captain straight away because that’s the only type of player that could have handled that wild bunch. Poor Henderson was like a choir boy among pirates. It was a pirate ship and it was the happiest team that any of these lads, Tyrone Marshall never got the credit that he deserved beforehand as well. Ivan McKinley was looked at as just a brutish player where in fact he was probably the most gifted, talented ball-playing defender in the entire league if people would actually look at his game and not just the tough personality he had. Nick Rimando, of course, again 5-foot-5, should never have been given a kick, took Jeff Cassar’s place. It was just a bunch of misfits that looked at each other like 11 elephant men that said, "what are we doing here?" We’ve got Mount Everest looking at us, let’s go for a good climb and just enjoy it. Our job as coaches...was just trying to make this bunch believe in being happy and enjoying the game. But Preki was probably the, I don’t want to say the most important ingredient in that team, but there was probably not anybody as important because he was the stardust, he truly was the stardust in a team that was very gifted in passing and possession football. But then you needed the “Messi,” you needed that dimension to open up something that was very, very hard to do with anything else other than pure footballing brilliance. We knew Preki had that, once upon a time, and in this team, we believed that it would still emerge over 90 minutes, not throughout the 90 minutes, but the big times in a game...that man will kill you. He will kill you. That team recognized and really, honestly, tolerated a lot of perhaps, what had left Preki, in terms of his overall industry. Which was still there, it just wasn’t at the level it was. And Jimmy Rooney and the rest of that team recognized that and were able to tolerate it and absolutely pay it back with their support. They did it with Serna. That was the whole beauty of that team was that camaraderie, but the recognition of all of those players that something special in that player. Preki, he was the personification of “special.” He was an inspiration to the team, you know. In the working week, not just on the battleground of the pitch on game day, it was Preki’s working week. He came literally with the proverbial hard hat every practice session. And I’ll tell you, Evan, practicing here in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the months of May, June, and July, is not a treat with 90 percent humidity and 95-degree weather. And Preki worked harder than anybody. I guess the guys looked at him and said, we’re right beside you. I’m not being too romantic about it as well. He was the inspiration for that wonderful side. And the beauty of it was, he was never happy. That’s what I’ll always remember. He was never happy. We would come out and we would football teams to death and Preki would put on a master class of wizardry, with his skill. And I’d go over to him and say, “fuck me, Preki, you fucking genius.” I’d kiss him, and he’d say, “yeah, but maybe I should have scored there, or I should have put this shit in there, Diego was wide open and I tried to put it in.” He was always the most beautiful mourner. And that’s what everybody smiled at him and loved him for.


Q: The criticism coming out around that time from his coaches was that Preki didn’t do anything defensively and was therefore a liability. Do you agree with that criticism and how did he fit into your team?


Hudson: Again, it’s in context and in the context of our team, Preki was a...willing nuisance. You weren’t looking at him to be the likes of a Jimmy Rooney, who would be the likes of (something) like a Rottweiler. You knew you weren’t going to get that from Preki and that’s acceptable in my eyes if he can strategically fit into a defensive shape and that’s what I called the nuisance value in the same way that Chacon was the same. These weren’t defensive footballers. I wasn’t going to make the demands on him that would eclipse his god-given talent to destroy teams the other way. That’s what we were looking for from him, to produce that stardust that I talk about. He wasn’t gonna do it defensively, but he was willing to be a nuisance. And often he would be brilliant at defending. He would win balls off players in deep positions like a defensive midfield player would think, because fool the old man by running with the ball, and Preki would be two steps ahead of him and block that lane, where he was going. His legs held out remarkably well for the demands and the work that he did. He covered a lot of ground, Preki. A lot of ground. He was no stroller. This wasn’t a player that would just walk around. When you look at Messi, again, you’ll see him turn off like a light switch. All of that time, he’s not taking it easy, he’s surveying the movement of the players, the movement of his teammates and recognizing where he can fill in or do damage when we get the ball. And then we need that athleticism and that electrical pace, because he still had that as well, over the first two yards. He would leave players dead with that wonderful seduction that he had. He caressed the ball in front of these idiots that thought they could reach in and actually get the ball and he would end up making them look like his little lollipop. Sometimes he’d even look back at them to see if they were still on the ground. He had everything for our team. We all loved him. The crowd would applaud him, with the 'ohs' and 'ahs' that he would draw. And of course, I’m sure you’ve heard this from other people that you’ve talked to, Evan, but my favorite times were when these idiot defenders or midfielders would close in on him and keep him on his right foot because they knew he didn’t have a right foot. That’s what they all thought, the morons, the stones, the cavemen. And Preki would shift it to his right foot and still dance past them. It was always the genius in his left foot, but that right foot was like a disguised little weapon that he would only use when he was pinned into difficult corners, but then it would come out and it would be “abra kadabra.” He was the most wonderful magician that way because he would show you the ball, and then he would disappear. It was a thrill to coach him and to be in the team. I can’t coach him, Evan. You didn’t coach Preki. You really didn’t. You handled him. You massaged him. You took him and you let him go. I think that was the best part of Preki’s experience with our Fusion, was that it wasn’t about structure. It wasn’t about fitting into a slot, into a specific regimented dictate. It was about letting go. It was about fucking letting go. Just fucking let go of it. All of the midfielders meshed with that forward line in a wonderful (combination) that would come out and we would have such faith that it doesn’t matter. Honestly, that year, it was like, the other team may score one or two or they may get a break here or there, but they’ll lose. We’ll score three or four more often than not because of our threat. It was the lads at the back who really were the bigger mourners than Preki. At the end of the games, when we won the matches, they understood this is what we are, this is who we are, this is what we got. They had fun, they had so much fun. I like to think, when I think of Preki’s best moments on the practice field and in the stadium, that he had fun with us.


Q: How do you think Preki was able to play for so long?


Hudson: I think it’s obviously a hack response to say “because he’s a great pro, because he’s a talented player and because he had good teammates, probably.” But I think the true answer is in his heart of hearts, he was always 25, 27. A player that is so naturally gifted as Preki, he’ll always feel that in the heart that the legs will support his brilliance of the entire encompassment of the game as he knows it. The legs will be there. And Preki looked after himself. You ask how he did it, he looked after himself. He had a social deal with the guys and stuff, but nothing compared to the rest of that team, that’s for sure. When he went back, I think he just carried it on. I like to think that when Kansas washed him away and didn’t want him anymore and felt he was washed up, that we gave him that opportunity to really stick it to them, and not just to them because nobody else in the league wanted him. He was done. He was washed up. That’s what the word was. It’s over. He’s a pain in the ass with his teammates. Doug Hamilton knew different, knew Preki on a personal level, and I...not even discussed (Preki) with him. But to your point, Evan, his was of an ability that is so rare in the manner that he plays his football, his age benefitted from that style that he operated under, which really wasn’t athleticism per say. He didn’t need to run at 1,000 miles per hour. It was his intuition, not just what to do when he had the ball, but where to be when he didn’t have the ball. He was such a surveyor of the game. Such a shrewd footballer. Even in his 40-year-old, he was able to retain that and still do damage. And I like to think that that Fusion season may have sparked him on a little bit more to think it wasn’t finished, it wasn’t over, and then he went back to the Wizards and did it again for an unbelievable encore. It may have shocked a lot of people or surprised a lot of people, but after you’ve known Preki and after you’ve known the good and the bad, what’s perceived as bad in him, you know that that competitor in him is never gonna go away, isn’t ever gonna diminish.



Q: Last year Preki quit as Sacramento Republic FC head coach to pursue another opportunity but no one has heard from him in a year. Does this surprise you?


Hudson: Not surprised. Maybe a little bewildered by it, perhaps. Preki was very much an introverted soul and a lot of the time had this sad reflection about him. He was a deep thinker, Preki. Even when he called you into his office in the locker room and he’d sit you down and he’d ask you. Behind them eyes, there’s a million things going on, and you never were really 100 percent sure of how much he was angling for something. Not in a Machiavellian way or a suspicious way, but you know, it would be like, it’s all right Preki. That was the thing with me, John, and others. It’s okay man. Just relax. For fuck’s sake, don’t take it all so seriously, just have a good time. I’m not sure if anybody had been with him for that long that didn’t put those demands and expectations on him the way that we did. It was a question of trust, and I think he appreciated that and paid it back as much as he could with the players and the lads and ourselves and then the crowd eventually, when he took to the stage. I’m not shocked to hear only that because he was such an insular personality. A bit of a private soul, but he wasn’t a stick in the mud or an asshole about things. He’d go out with the guys. He’d have a good laugh. But I’ve gotta tell you, Evan, the times that Preki would, that you would see him laugh and smile were occasions rather than...they were exceptions rather than the rule. He had somewhat of a sad demeanor, too much of the time, Prek. I always felt as if he was in that sort of area where, as all the great players truly inhabit, a lonely place at times. I played with the greatest of the great in the likes of Muller and Besty? And on and on. They all have had that share of loneliness about them sometimes. Not again being overly dramatic about it, but I think those types of gifted players need some sort of solace about them and maybe it all becomes a little bit too much. He needs his walk in the desert for 40 days sometimes, I don’t know. I hope he’s okay though.


Q: There are legendary stories about his level of intensity, how was he with you?


Hudson: It was always this question, he’s often questioned things about when we would have, we would take, with that team, you had to take so many ambitious and hopefully calculated gambles. For example, giving them two, three days off ahead of a big, big game. And Preki would be like, “what the fuck are we doing? Why aren’t we practicing the set pieces more? Why aren’t we doing more approaches to goal?” We would take the guys down to the beach for some head tennis or for just a walk around the lot of parks, stuff like that, whatever. Preki would always have...he was coaching back then. He really was. The game isn’t played by really X’s and O’s and nobody demonstrates that like Preki. His coaches with him, we had seen a lot of that, and we didn’t want to be a part of that sort of structure. We wanted to be something different in this opportunity with this collection of players. We had to be different. If we did things normal, we would have been beaten every game, but as it was, we were wiping the floor with these other teams. It was him that was a great benefactor. I think he got it as the time went on. He got it early, he did. He started to really relish that trust. You know, the other thing, Evan, with players like that, you would think the perception is, again, from people that don’t know the game, idiots like I call them, that look at a player like him as a luxury, where really, he’s not the luxury, more often than not, it’s the players around him that are the luxury. With his Fusion team, they were all that combination of recognizing, this was needed. With Preki as well, I think in his week of work and preparation, that was one of the most admirable facets of his game, how he would prepare from the morning of work, how he would prepare and really go and it was great. I loved when the practices would get a bit edgy, because what we would do, we’d practice for very close, condensed amounts of time in the Florida heat and humidity. It was only maybe an hour sometimes. But it would be hell. It would be absolute hell and it would be concentrated and condensed into pure competition. And speed of thought and speed with the passing movements, Preki loved that. But what I loved more than anything is when it got a bit edgy and tempers would fly a little bit high. And this is towards the end of the practice, often when we’d have the final game against each other. Tackles would go in a little bit hard and a little bit nasty, and I loved that. They would come in at Preki like Ivan McKinly and Jimmy Rooney and they would rattle his cage and say, “you fucking old bastard, you fucking couldn’t get past me” and then Preki would come back and jig one way, jig again, jig again, and then smack it into the net. Then that smile would come and the lads would be mauling you, “fucking asshole.” It was all in great spirit, then we’d walk in hand-in-hand, they’d be dancing in the shower, listening to it all. That part of it, it would be easy for Preki to back away from those challenges in that heat of hard practice, two days before a big game. But he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. That’s the real beauty of it. He fucking couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything else than what he’s done all of his life and that’s what the great players always do. We’re seeing it in Totti right now. These players, they don’t know, they don’t know when to fucking walk away, they’ve got no idea. It ain’t over for them. They milk it until it’s dry and then they’ll milk it more. It was some of the greatest memories of my career in football, on that practice field, watching those guys go in it, hammer and tongs. And Preki just skipping the legs fantastically right in front of everybody. And then that fucking ridiculous smile of his, the lads would just know that that’s Preki.


Q: Do you have anything else to add?


Hudson: I’m happy recollecting some of the best days of my life, and I’m pleased he was a part of it. Of all of the decisions I made as the Fusion coach, that one probably was the best of all, when Doug says, “where you gonna play him?” I said, “I don’t fucking know, just get him. Just get him.” Hamilton’s face just lit up and that was it. If you come across him, Evan, please give him a kiss for me and tell him I love him and I think about him all the time.

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